In the mid 1950s, a
generation of Detroit pre schoolers sat in front of their TV screens hoping that
Romper Room’s Miss Ardis would see them in her Magic Mirror. "Romper bomper stomper boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me,
do. Magic Mirror, tell me today, have all my friends had fun at play?”
Ardis Kenealy was born in
Detroit on May 27, 1922. She attended Cadillac Grade School and Redford High
School, where she became interested in the dramatic arts. At Wayne University
Kenealy studied advertising.
Her modeling career began at
the age of 19, when she was hired by Cypress Gardens in Florida to
promote the virtues of good health and outdoor living.
In 1944 Kenealy was
contacted by a clearing house for service publication art who got her work as a
World War II pin-up girl. Her image was seen around the world in service
magazines such as Yank and Seapower.
After the war and back in
Detroit, Kenealy appeared in several industrial films at Jam Handy Studios and
performed in summer stock at Will-O-Way Playhouse.
Kenealy’s first TV
experience was Open House (WWJ-TV),
a daily audience participation / variety show, where she did the live
Hotpoint appliance commercials with Bill Wendell, who later became Ernie Kovacs’ and David Letterman’s announcer.
Making its debut in January
of 1951 was Playschool (WWJ-TV), an early morning children’s program.
The cast of characters included Merrie Melody, who played the piano and sang
songs; Midge, who introduced cartoons; Eko, the artist who drew sketches while the
Story Spinner told stories and Lady Dooit the craft lady. Kenealy was the Magic
Fairy, who flew thru the sky to introduce each segment.
A 1952 survey conducted by WWJ solicited nearly 14,000 positive letters in a 48 hour period from the parents of Playschool viewers, causing the station to expand the program from four to five days a week. The show was continually in the top ten of all programs airing in Detroit, including prime time.
With six main characters,
the show was expensive to produce. It was also in direct competition with the
very popular Wixie’s Wonderland, which was gaining in popularity over
at WXYZ. Wixie ultimately won the time slot and Playschool went off the air in
September of 1954, replaced by Romper Room.
Romper Room was one
of the first franchise TV programs in the country, meaning local affiliates like
WWJ in Detroit could produce their own versions of the show. Kenealy, known on
the show as “Miss Ardis,” was personally trained by Nancy Claster,
originator of the Romper Room program.
Six children between the
ages of four and six were chosen to appear on the show. Every two weeks a new
group of children took their places. There was a one year waiting list to get on
the show. Kresge’s was the official sponsor.
On each program Kenealy told
stories, sang songs and led the children in games and activities, all based on
accredited nursery school methods. Ole Foerch, a WWJ employee since the 1920s,
was the show’s musical conductor. Bill Tyson was the show’s floor director.
He had the unenviable task of keeping six preschoolers in line every day
on live TV.
In 1957 a special “Romper
Room Party” was held at Edgewater Amusement Park. Over 10,000 children showed
up to meet Miss Ardis and special guests Cactus Dan Edwards, WWJ-TV weatherman
Sonny Eliot and the show’s mascot, Mr. Do Bee..
Miss Ardis looked into her
magic mirror for the last time in late 1959. Romper Room was replaced on WWJ
by another franchise show, Bozo the Clown. CKLW-TV picked up the rights
to Romper Room in 1960, with
Flora Paulin as the new host.
By 1960 Kenealy had logged
in over 3,500 hours of live television, and
was one of Detroit’s top models, both on stage and in print. She was also in
demand as a voice artist and narrator for commercials and industrial films.
In 1963 she returned to
television as WXYZ-TV's weekend weather girl.
Kenealy travelled to Europe
for a few years to study the culinary arts, which evolved into her own catering
business. Over the years she has catered the weddings of several former Romper
Roomers. At one time she thought about returning to television to host a cooking
show with local Detroit chef Douglas Grech, but those plans never materialized.
In 1986 WDIV paid tribute to
Kenealy and other Detroit television pioneers with A Salute to Excellence, a two
hour television tribute hosted by radio’s Dick Purtan.
Ardis Kenealy is now
retired, but she donates her time to various local charities. When asked
recently what she thinks of the current crop of children’s television, she
answered, “I think some of them are violent. I look back at some of the
programs that were on TV years ago and feel that they were really innocuous but
really very, very good.”